I don’t know from personal experience, but I’m told that anesthesiologists describe their jobs as a strange combination of having to be alert all the time, while things are routine and occasionally boring, then having to shift into crisis mode instantly when the routine things start to go sideways.
For a judge, trying cases is much the same. The points at which total concentration becomes necessary may be easily anticipated, as with the State’s key witness in a criminal case, or totally unexpected, when a party says something totally unanticipatedly right in the midst of pretty ordinary testimony. (Usually, when that happens, that party’s lawyer is hearing this interesting fact for the first time as well! It is an opportunity to observe how good that lawyer’s poker face is.
Unlike the old “Perry Mason” TV show, the guilty party usually does not break down on the stand and confess the crime. Most days, things go pretty much as anticipated. But there are exceptions to the rule. While rare, every judge and trial lawyer has had a few “Perry Mason moments”, when the game changing event happens right before your very eyes.
My most memorable moment was a few years back. As chance would have it on this particular day, a new summer intern was starting his assignment with me. Usually I have the opportunity to get to know a new intern before heading into court, but this time the intern and I had not met previously, and we only had a few minutes to introduce ourselves before court started. I told him we were going to hear Protection from Harassment cases that morning, and that unlike TV, there probably wouldn’t be any dramatic moments.
So, in we went and heard a few regular cases. Then an unusual case began in which a couple (the Plaintiffs) were accusing two foreign men (the Defendants) of a home invasion, and wanted an order barring them from their neighborhood. (There was an ongoing companion criminal case.) One of the two Defendants had been bailed, and had an experienced lawyer with him. The other had not made bail, and did not yet have a court-appointed attorney assigned.
The attorney for the first Defendant had no doubt advised his client to keep his mouth shut, which he wisely did. However, the second Defendant probably understood he was likely to go down for the criminal charge, and must have decided that if he was going down, so was everyone else.
So when his turn came to testify, I swore him in, and he promptly began to explain that this was not an unprovoked home invasion, but rather a dispute amongst the four parties about how to divide the proceeds from their cocaine dealing. I stopped him, gave him his Miranda rights, advised him the proceeding was being taped and that the State could use anything he said against him at a criminal trial. He obviously decided that he didn’t care and was just going for it.
He went on to detail how the Plaintiff’s mother used their child’s diapers to transport the cocaine, where and how the drug sales took place, and then started to detail how he and his compatriots were also using a home health agency to generate fake invoices to defraud Medicare. I stopped him again, and explained that after I got off the bench, the first thing I was going to do was to call the US Attorney’s office. He just kept on going.
So, after denying the requested Protection From Abuse, I went back to chambers, took a few calming deep breaths, and called the local Assistant US Attorney. I then sat down with my brand new intern and explained that it really wasn’t like this everyday, and in fact the hearing we’d just finished was probably going to be the high point of his summer!
One never knows just how things will play out! While Perry Mason moments are infrequent, they do occur, and then become the basis for great courtroom stories.
Senior Policy Advisor